The Canadian Association of University Teachers was founded during the Learned Societies meeting at McGill University on June 3, 1951. The Teaching Staff Association at the University of Alberta pioneered the creation of CAUT when, in 1948, it sent a letter to faculty in other universities to determine whether they would be interested in forming a national association of university teachers.
The University of Alberta group suggested that such a national association could deal with issues such as salaries, tenure, pensions, income tax policy, sabbaticals and academic freedom. With respect to how the proposed association could promote the interests of university teachers, they noted that collective bargaining was gaining in popularity among academics with agreements being pursued at the University of Alberta and the University of Saskatchewan. At the University of British Columbia, a Committee of Faculty Organization was about to recommend the creation of a Faculty Negotiating Committee to begin salary negotiations.
Responses to Alberta’s letter were positive and driven primarily by the concerns with poor salaries and a sense of the declining status of academic staff. It was decided to form an organizing committee to meet when the Learned Societies held their annual session in 1950 at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario. At that meeting, the decision was taken to establish a national organization, and a provisional governing committee was formed with eighteen members from sixteen universities.
For eight years, CAUT operated without any permanent structure or staff. Dues were minimal, and members of the Executive Board came from one geographical area to save costs. During that time, the main focus was on economic issues – gathering and distributing data on salaries and supporting the general campaign to secure federal funding for universities. While academic freedom had been mentioned at the founding meeting, it remained a secondary issue. At the CAUT meeting in June, 1958, the motion to create a standing committee to keep a watching brief on tenure and academic freedom was defeated, although it was agreed to set up a committee to consider CAUT’s role in protecting individuals in relation to tenure and academic freedom. An amendment was added to affirm that these were the concern of the organization.
Little did the participants at that meeting know that CAUT was about to be transformed by events happening simultaneously at United College in Winnipeg. The firing of Prof. Harry Crowe in July 1958 and CAUT’s decision to set up its first investigatory committee, headed by Vernon Fowke (Saskatchewan) and Bora Laskin (Toronto), changed CAUT forever. The case focused attention across Canada on the issue of academic freedom, and the resulting struggle gave impetus to CAUT creating a viable structure to deal with problems facing academic staff.
In July 1959 CAUT appointed J.H. Stewart Reid to be its first executive secretary. Reid had been one of the 16 faculty members at United College to resign their jobs in solidarity with Crowe and in opposition to his firing. In a footnote not known until the 2009 CAUT Council meeting honouring the 16, Reid had resigned his job and given up his pension to stand with his colleagues in protest of Crowe’s firing even though he had no other job prospects and had learned months earlier that he had terminal cancer.
CAUT had 27 member associations in 1959 and a budget of just over $25,000. It grew steadily in the coming years. By 1963 CAUT had 38 member associations with 4,800 individual members and a budget of $41,000. A decade later there were 47 member associations with 17,500 individual members and a budget of $568,000. Including three federated associations, CAUT today represents 68,000 academic staff at 122 universities and colleges and has an annual budget of more than $7 million.